Rabu, 22 Februari 2012

Season Previews, Part Ten: Colorado Rockies

2011 Record: 73-89
Pythagorean Record: 77-85
Games out of first: 21

2011 Recap

2011 was the story of an otherwise good team with some serious holes. There were some great performances by some former MVP contenders like Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Todd Helton, along with a solid supporting cast of Chris Iannetta, Seth Smith, and Dexter Fowler. Even pinch hitter Jason Giambi raked. However, these performances were offset by some real holes in the lineup created by players like Mark Ellis and Ty Wigginton. Additionally, the team had trouble keeping its stars on the field, as only three players cleared 130 games. All told, what should have been a real strength in the offense sputtered, scoring 735 runs with a 90 OPS+.

Strangely, while the offense floundered, the pitching tried to pick up the slack. Jhoulys Chacin emerged as a cornerstone arm in the rotation, putting up a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts at just 23 years of age. Veteran arms like Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook held the line in the rotation, while the bullpen was lights-out. The top-five relievers in terms of games pitched all pitched in at least 62 games, and all had an ERA+ of at least 110, with three over 138. Rafael Betancourt in particular partied like it was 2007, with an insane 9.13 K/BB ratio.

Ultimately, however, average pitching could not keep the Rockies in ballgames, and after a rough road trip that saw them lose four straight and fall to 11 games out in late July, the Rox traded their ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, to Cleveland for one of the most exciting pitching prospects in baseball, Drew Pomeranz, and then some. Pomeranz, then 22, would go on to pitch for the big league club in September, but the message was received: the Rockies were sending up the white flag on 2011, and a retooling effort would be needed to get back in the race in the wonky NL West.

Top Performers by WAR (bWAR for hitters, fWAR for pitchers)

1. Troy Tulowitzki (5.8)
2. Todd Helton (2.8)
3. Carlos Gonzalez (2.6)
Chris Iannetta (2.6)
5. Jhoulys Chacin (2.5)
Ubaldo Jimenez (2.5)

Offseason Overview

The 2011-12 offseason has been busy, if not newsmaking for the Rockies. Smartly, Dan O'Dowd recognised that the team was relatively young, was hurt more by health than by lack of talent, and made adjustments rather than sweeping changes. They added an arm to the rotation mix in talented youngster Tyler Chatwood by trading Iannetta to the Angels, and signed veteran backstop Ramon Hernandez to replace him. The 36-year old former All-Star is solid on both sides of the ball, and it should be most interesting to see what he can do in Coors. Kevin Slowey was acquired for Daniel Turpen , a minor league pitcher last seen being traded for Ramon Ramirez, and Colorado swapped talented youngsters with the Cubs, trading out Ian Stewart for Tyler Colvin, neither of whom have found the success their talent has dictated for them. Steady bat Michael Cuddyer was signed and versatile Marco Scutaro was acquired for virtually nothing.

Perhaps most impressive is that the 2012 club has much of the same level of talent as the 2011 model, but O'Dowd managed to get a hold of some young talent to boot. Chatwood was just the beginning, as closer Huston Street was traded to San Diego, and Wigginton was sent to the Phillies in return for players to be named. Seth Smith, who should wither and die in Oakland, was traded for cost-controlled pitchers Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso.

Notable Additions

C Ramon Hernandez
SP Tyler Chatwood
IF Marco Scutaro
IF Casey Blake
OF Michael Cuddyer
OF Tyler Colvin
SP Jeremy Guthrie

Notable Subtractions

SP Jason Hammel
RP Matt Lindstrom
IF Ian Stewart
C Chris Iannetta
OF Seth Smith

Projected Lineup

CF Dexter Fowler
2B Marco Scutaro
LF Carlos Gonzalez
SS Troy Tulowitzki
1B Todd Helton
RF Michael Cuddyer
C Ramon Hernandez
3B Casey Blake

This lineup could be very good or very bad. 1-6 are good, patient hitters with, for the most part, either speed or pop. Hernandez, and even Blake, should hold their own. However, it is not a perfect world. There are several players in here well past their prime, and it should be expected that someone in the bottom half of that lineup will completely fall off a cliff. Additionally, it will rely heavily on Gonzalez and Tulowitzki in the middle. If one of them goes down, this lineup could become mediocre or worse in a hurry.

Defensively, the infield will be fine; Tulowitzki and Helton both have and deserve Gold Glove awards, and Scutaro, Blake and Hernandez are all roughly average defenders. Fowler isn't a true center fielder and Cuddyer will be an adventure in the expanses of Coors Field, but Gonzalez is decent in left, and, if it's any consolation, Willie Mays wouldn't be able to catch the kind of fly balls Guthrie will be serving up. Speaking of Guthrie,

Projected Rotation

RHP Jeremy Guthrie
RHP Jhoulys Chacin
RHP Juan Nicasio
RHP Alex White
RHP Guillermo Moscoso

Again, this is an unpredictable rotation. Moscoso and Guthrie are serviceable innings-eaters, but Chacin, Nicasio and White (one of the returns in the Jimenez trade) are all young, 22-24, and none of them miss enough bats to make me think they will be successful at Coors. Expect the first one to fail to be replaced by either Chatwood or Pomeranz.

Significant Relievers/Reserve Players

C Wilin Rosario
PH Jason Giambi
OF Tyler Colvin
RP Rafael Betancourt
RP Rex Brothers
RP Matt Belisle

Wilin Rosario, 23, is likely serving an apprenticeship under the veteran Hernandez in preparation for a takeover in 2013. Giambi just keeps hitting at age 41. Only time will tell if he can do it once again, but for now he's the most feared pinch-hitter in the league. Colvin was a talent that just never blossomed in Chicago. Colorado is as good a place as any to find a swing, but it remains to be seen if the Rox will find him at bats.

Betancourt, Brothers and Belisle will form the back end of the bullpen, holdovers from that crazy relief corps of last season.

Roster Strengths

Youth in the rotation, a solid bullpen, a strong offensive core, and good defense in the infield. There are five starting pitchers looking for spots under 25 years of age (Pomeranz, Chatwood, White, Chacin, Nicasio). Combine them with reliable guys like Guthrie, Outman, Moroscoso, et al, and there should be plenty of solid innings to be had out of the rotation.

Roster Weaknesses

Age everywhere else. While much of the roster has their best years ahead of them, they are old in many spots as well. If Hernandez turns 36 all of a sudden and Rosario can't handle the full-time job, if Scutaro, or Blake, or Cuddyer all start looking their ages (and Cuddyer could really be exposed defensively), or if, heaven forbid, the 38-year-old Helton hits the wall, this relatively young team will be remembered only as a squad laden with veterans that couldn't keep up.

2012 Outlook

I like the 2012 Rockies. I think some exciting pitching is going to emerge, the offense should score at a fine pace, and they should make noise deep into the summer in the lolNL West. This is a young, versatile roster that is supported by a healthy farm system that Keith Law recently ranked 13th in MLB. There are holes; there always are. They will need some breaks, but in the NL West, anything is possible. If you're a casual Rox fan, you might want to keep your finger on the pulse of this team.

Potential Breakout Player

Pomeranz, baby. Pomeranz was the 5th overall pick in one of the most stacked drafts ever, the 2010 class. In 101 MiL innings he put up a 1.78 ERA and a 10.9 K/9 in 2011, before pitching kind of meh in a few MLB starts. The big lefty out of Mississippi can dial it up into the mid-90s with solid command and a monster hook. He'll be 23 in 2012, and will be looking to earn a rotation spot out of spring training. If he can catch on with the MLB club and put in 150 IP, he could miss a bunch of bats (the only way to succeed in Colorado) and create some serious value.

Potential Bust

On a team loaded with veterans and even a future Hall of Famer or two, there are plenty of bust candidates, but I'm going to have a little fun with this one: Jhoulys Chacin. Now, the kid had a solid 2011 campaign, but all signs point to a ton of luck: his fielder-independents range from decent (3.95 xFIP, 4.08 SIERA) to poor (4.60 tERA). His .264 2011 babip should be a real turnoff. He does one good thing, and that is keeping the ball on the ground. He had a 56% GB rate in 2011, with a career rate of 52%, which is crucial for success on not just a team with good infield defense, but a launching pad like Coors.

Where he scares me is in his K/BB numbers. As a starter, he is roughly average at striking people out, but he is noticeably below average at not walking guys. Now, anybody that has acceptable K/BB rates and a 55% GB rate is going to hang on as an MLB starter. My warning is this: do not expect Chacin to be the second coming of Ubaldo Jimenez. He's a promising young talent, but I do not think he will ever be a real MLB ace.

Top-Ten Prospects with potential to contribute in 2012

#1 Drew Pomeranz: as discussed earlier, he's kind of good.

#4 Wilin Rosario: a young catcher with a great arm and plus power, Rosario will be the backup 2 behind Ramon Hernandez. Hopefully he can cut down on his passed balls a little bit and let his bat and his arm play as a plus big-league catcher as soon as 2013.

#5 Tim Wheeler: A decent hitter and outfielder, he slashed .287/.365/.535 as a 23-year old in Double-A in 2011. He doesn't project as a star in the big leagues, and is behind Colvin and Eric Young on the depth chart, but Wheeler may see some time in Denver this season.


Record: 86-76
Finish: 2nd
MVP: Troy Tulowitzki (6.5 WAR)

Final Thoughts

This is not a world-beating squad. There is a lot of talent here, but also some real pitfalls. The rotation is largely unproven, and the lineup is getting older. This is a classic 'if' team. Can they stay healthy? Can Guthrie and Moscoso survive Coors Field? Can the other pitchers develop? Can the bullpen can repeat 2011? Can Helton and Giambi go back to the well one more time? If this club has answers to all of these, this may be a division winner. If they can't find any, they might lose 90 games.

This makes the club terribly exciting, to me. What makes it more exciting is the sheer amount of young talent on the team. Its stars are in their mid-20s. Most of its rotation is under 25. Whether you want to watch one of the game's great talents play shortstop, or watch a brilliant young pitcher turn into an ace, or watch a local legend put the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career, there are many things you can say about the 2012 Rockies; 'boring' isn't one of them.

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